Author's Notes: Thank you to all who read and/or reviewed; it means so much to me. Here's the second installment to Needles. Sorry it took so long. Really, I'd been hoping to put this up a lot sooner. Thank you for your patience.

Branches

Lenalee leaned over as she traveled across the snow, trailing her finger in the white and leaving behind a long, thin line. She smiled in delight and slid her finger back and forth, making the line curved and wavy. All around her, thick evergreen branches closed in on her and her friends, blocking out the light.

It had been Brutus' idea for them to ride in the branches of the trees as they dragged them along. Lenalee figured she wasn't ready to attempt riding horseback again and Daisya was all for the tree idea which pretty much forced Kanda into submission.

Although she'd only just started, she quickly grew bored with her line drawing. Lenalee lifted her head and smiled back at her friends, but Daisya had pulled his hood over his face and had drawn his cloak over his legs. Lenalee giggled. He looked like a lumpy, black tent to her. Kanda was sitting nearby in a mild shivering state, keeping his arms wrapped around his torso.

"Are you okay?" She asked worriedly

Kanda nodded. "I've always hated this weather."

"Why's that?" Lenalee asked. "I think it's very lovely. The snow's so light and fluffy and the icicles shine when they catch the light. Ooh, we should try ice-skating before winter is over! I heard some of the finders talking about it earlier and—"

"You like having very little sunlight and a grey sky?"

"Well, no." Actually, she hated the lack of light the season brought. It reminded her too much of the darkness in the Order. "But isn't waiting for the blue sky and the sun again part of the excitement?"

Before Kanda could answer, the branches parted ways and Gwen's smiling face appeared. "Everything all right in there? Bit cold, are we?"

Daisya didn't lift his head, but a single hand emerged from the folds of his cloak and gave them all a thumbs up. Gwen let out a gentle laugh and turned to Lenalee. "And what about you? Kazana told me about. . ." She didn't finish and her blue eyes saddened at the sight of Lenalee's upset expression. "Ah, you're too young to have awful memories. Makes me think of when I arrived at the Order." She murmured to herself.

Lenalee perked her ears up, wondering if she would share her experiences. Has miss Gwen gone through something terrible, too? She hadn't really thought of any of how the other exorcists had come to be at the Order. Sure, Daisya had told her his story, but given his free will in the matter, she'd assumed it was the same for everyone else. Now that she thought about it, she'd known Kanda for some time and had never asked about his background.

"What happened?" She asked softly.

Gwen's eyes hardened, crystal eyes becoming chips of ice. "That is a personal question, Lee." Her voice came out sharp as a whip, but then she must've realized what she'd said for she cleared her throat, eyes softening in immediate apology. "Sorry, ma cheré, I'm not scolding you. But don't ask any exorcist about how the Order identified them unless it's of the utmost importance. If they trust you, they'll tell you in their own time, but otherwise, it's. . .rather impolite."

Lenalee widened her eyes. "I-I'm sorry! I didn't—"

"I understand. You didn't know." Gwen smiled and put a finger to her lips. "That's why I'll forgive you." She winked and let the branches fall back into place. Lenalee lowered her head in regret.

Daisya lifted his eyes and patted her hair. "She's not mad, Moppet."

"I know. It's just. . ." She bowed her head. "I never even considered anyone else here has gone through what I have or even worse. I didn't think about them and that must make me seem like a hateful person."

"Oh, be quiet." Kanda muttered. "With what you've been through already, it makes sense why you wouldn't give a rat's tail about anyone else." Lenalee opened her mouth to protest but he beat her to it. "Gwen isn't angry and you're young enough not to think about anything like that."

Lenalee leaned against one of the branches. It made sense, she supposed. She herself wouldn't want to tell a complete stranger what she'd been through. "Then I won't do it again." She promised, folding her hands together as if in prayer. From now on, I'll put my friends first. And Brother. They'll always come first.

They rode in silence for a while, listening to the sifting sound of the tree against the snow. At some point, Kanda took Mugen out and began carving patterns in the tree trunk, which Lenalee immediately put an end to. Denied any other form of entertainment, Daisya tried playing a variety of tunes with the Charity Bell, but only produced a rough, jangling sound with no rhyme or reason. Lenalee giggled as he shook his head in dismay and gave up. "Whatever, it's a former door bell." He glanced down. "This tree is dropping needles like crazy." He looked back up at them with a grin. "Want to count them?"

Lenalee rolled onto her belly and clung to the tree trunk. Her hood fell over her green hair as she bent her head down for a better view. As they passed, she began counting the tiny flecks in the white as fast as she could.

As it turned out, it was a task easier said than done. Simply put, there were too many needles in the snow and she soon found herself rapidly listing off numbers in chronological order rather than counting what she was supposed to. Oh, well. She thought. Surely Daisya was doing the same thing. Lenalee blew her hair out of her face and sat up again, brushing bangs out of her eyes.

"You need to cut those." Kanda advised. Lenalee sniffed and shook them out of her nose. "You have your brother back so there's no need to hide behind them anymore."

"Final count," Daisya announced, coming back up. "Six hundred forty-three. Plus two poop patties."

"Ew!" Lenalee squeaked.

He grinned at her face and started to speak when the tree slow to a halt and Gwen poked her head through the branches again. "Bonjour! Come on out now!"

"We can't be back already." Kanda observed, sliding off the tree trunk and crawling out of the branches. Lenalee and Daisya followed suit. He was right; the Order hadn't been at all close to Gwen's choice of spots in the forest. As soon as Lenalee freed herself from the evergreen, she was suddenly swept up into a pair of gigantic hands and she shrieked without meaning to.

"Whoa, sorry 'bout that, girlie." Brutus smiled apologetically, showing his teeth. Lenalee noticed he had a couple gaps in his otherwise flawless smile. "Didn't mean to scare ya." Without absolutely no effort, he perched her on his muscled shoulder and pointed in the distance. "Someone's a comin'."

Lenalee squinted into the distance to see a flurry of white snow hurdling headed toward them. "Is it an akuma?" she asked, shrinking against his thick neck.

"Shoot, no!" Brutus laughed, large shoulders trembling in mirth. "That'd be miss Sol Galen comin' to greet us."

"Oh." Lenalee had heard of her and had seen her several times between the woman's missions. She remembered she wasn't much older than Gwen and had a pair of mismatched eyes; one aqua green and the other deep ocean blue. Her hair was an unusual powdery white color and was short in length with a single bead hairclip. There was really no need for the accessory, not some deactivated anti-akuma weapon, but it did give her a childish appearance.

With her long, black cloak billowing behind her, Sol cut an impressive figure. Unlike the other exorcists, her winter uniform resembled a Lapp parka and was made entirely of black and white furs, just like clothes of the northern people of her homeland. With an urging bark at the horses pulling the sleigh, she flicked the reins again.

Lenalee whimpered as the sound of the drumming hooves came into earshot. Sensing her discomfort, Brutus gave another toothy grin and patted her shoulder. "Don't you fret none, kiddo. If there any an exorcist who knows 'ow to drive a couple o' horses an' a sleigh, it's Sol."

Right at that moment, Sol pulled back on the reins. "Whoa!" called her sharp, piping voice. The pair of matching, dappled horses dug their hooves into the snow and slowed to a halt several yards from the main group. "Whoa, I say!"

Gwen rushed forward with her arms outstretched for a hug. "Solly, ma mie!" She cried, throwing her arms around the willowy, Scandinavian woman's slim shoulders the moment she stepped out of the sleigh. "And Marie? Comment es-tu, mon ami? I haven't seen you since October!"

Lenalee craned her neck, having not noticed the big man in the back of the sleigh. "Well enough, Gwen. And yourself."

"Ah," Gwen pulled away from Sol and waved her hand dismissively. "We've been out here for the better part of the day. We're cold, we're tired' and we're hungry."

"Let us remedy a little of that." Sol offered, clapping her friend over her shoulder and starting back toward the sleigh. She grinned knowingly over her shoulder. "As a matter a fact, the main reason we came all the way out here is that Jerry sent us out with something for everyone."

-0-0-0-

Brutus didn't put Lenalee down until he was sure she'd received a cup of hot cocoa and a couple of cookies. And only after he'd brought her back to her friends did he leave her to go back to Gwen and Sol. Lenalee peeled her mittens off her hands and munched on her chocolate chip cookie. She guessed it was fresh, for it was still hot and felt soft.

"Hey, Moppet, you should try sticking it in your cocoa." Daisya advised, doing the same with his own. "It's really tasty that way." He turned. "Hey, Kanda, that cookie won't eat itself. Though that would be interesting to see."

Kanda ignored him and sniffed suspiciously at the steaming cup's contents. Lenalee smiled at him. "You drink it, silly."

He shot a glare in her direction, then took a long sip of the bitter liquid, licked his lower lip and turnedto Marie, who had been standing with them ever since he'd finished helping Sol pass out cocoa. "Why are you out here, anyway?"

"Sol asked me to help her distribute the cocoa." He large man replied, affectionately patting the boy's shoulder. "And I like the winter Sounds."

"What does it sound like?" Lenalee asked excitedly. She knew the elder exorcist had been blinded in a mission several years back and had been using his uncanny hearing ability for mobility, though she wasn't entirely sure how it worked. He'd tried to explain it to her multiple times, describing the frequency and vibrations of sound waves and whatnot, but she still didn't understand it.

Marie smiled in her direction. "It's difficult to explain."

"Oh." Lenalee nodded solemnly.

"Hey, think we ought to visit Town Below?" Daisya asked through a cookie stuffed in his mouth.

"You're disgusting." Kanda muttered. He took a bite of his own cookie, frowned for a second, then shrugged and took another. Lenalee was glad to see him eat it, even though he probably didn't like it one bit. The only reason he was eating a cookie was because he was probably hungry.

"Why do you want to go to Town Below?" Asked Lenalee. Sure, she had wanted to go today, but not if it would inconvenience her friends.

"Well, Kanda promised you a Christmas present and I'd better get you something too. Town Below seems like a good place to look." Daisya shrugged and swallowed hard, clutching at his throat and coughing slightly.

Marie gave him a stern look. "Master has told you many times before to chew your food." He sighed and turned to Kanda. "Are you going with them?"

Kanda glanced at Lenalee, then back to Marie. "I suppose."

"That settles it, then." Daisya stated, bolting down his half-empty cup of cocoa and completely ignoring Marie's earlier warning.

"And that is why I don't like dealing with morons." Kanda growled as the older boy shoveled snow into his scalded mouth.

Lenalee only giggled at Daisya's antics. He shoved his face into the snow, grasped at his throat, grappled with his coat collar, and leaped and bounded across the snow like a cat with string tied to the end of its tail. In the end, he was rolling in a snow bank and bemoaning his fate. "I'm okay!" He finally shouted, springing up again and rubbing his throat. "Ow, that was stupid, huh?"

Lenalee nodded, nearly in tears now.

"Hey, what's so funny?" Daisya demanded. Lenalee screamed as a chunk of snow suddenly hit her mouth.

"Daisya!" Marie scolded, fearing the girl had been hurt, but Lenalee had already set her cup of cocoa on the ground and was lobbing more snowballs at the older boy.

Daisya cackled in impish glee as he retreated, bounding over mounds of snow with Lenalee chasing after him. For a moment, he paused, waiting until she was in the finger's breath of grabbing him, then sped off again. Lenalee hurtled forward but tripped in the snow, drawing the older boy back to her and pulling his hood back over her green hair. Marie laughed at the Sound of their joy, but fell silent as he realized Kanda wasn't joining them. "Is something wrong?"

Kanda shook his head and took another sip of cocoa, holding the mug between two hands for warmth.

"You ought to join them." Marie encouraged. "You don't know when you'll be able to have fun like this again." He put a large hand on his shoulder, but Kanda shook it off. "Come now, what's wrong?"

"It's nothing."

"You can tell me." Marie put his hand on the boy's head, stroking his short hair. This time, the boy didn't reject him. "It's all right, Kanda. If you don't want to talk about it, we don't have to. But I am here to listen if you need me. Don't forget that." Ever since they met, he'd been very protective of this child who'd saved his life. Despite his fierce temper now, he could still picture the vulnerable, half-drowned boy he'd met, and then same boy gone mad with grief and fear. Ever since Director Bak Chan asked him to look after Kanda while he was at the Main Headquarters, he'd wanted to support the boy as much as he could, no matter how much Kanda seemed to resent it.

"Go play." Marie insisted, nudging him forward.

Kanda lowered his head and nodded, handing him his cup and trudging out across the snow. It was Lenalee who noticed him coming first. She scurried up to him and leaped for a flying hug, sending them tumbling back into the snow.

Lenalee perched herself on top of her friend and stuck her lower lip out. "Don't look so gloomy all the time! Can't you smile at least once in a while?"

Kanda neatly avoided confrontation with the question, "I thought we were going to Town Below."

"Ooh!" Lenalee cried, clapping her hands in excitement. She'd almost forgotten. "Can we go now? Oh, please!"

"Sure, duckling." His eyes narrowed. "Get off me."

Lenalee clambered off and rolled away in the snow, getting even more flakes in her hair. Still laughing, Daisya approached and held his hand out. "Need a hand?" Kanda grasped it and let the older exorcist pull him to his feet. "There we go." But he pulled him closer and said in a low tone, "Town Below's quite the distance, isn't it? If we walk, we'll get there late this evening. You understand, right?"

"We'd have to take the horses." Kanda concluded, casting a glance at Lenalee but the girl had gone back to Marie and her abandoned cocoa cup.

"Right." Daisya sighed in contemplation. "What should we do?"

Kanda shrugged. "We could ask her if she's okay with it."

"Why is she so scared of the horses?" He flinched when Kanda glared murderously at him. "What? What did I say?" It was a simple question and he was curious; he didn't think there was anything personal about it.

Kanda's glare lifted slightly. "Oh, that's right. You weren't here."

"Huh?"

He nodded in Lenalee's direction. "You've heard about what she went through, right?"

Daisya nodded. Everyone in the Order had heard about her trying initiation into the exorcist's life. He'd joined toward the end of her trials, but from what he'd heard, it had been much worse than what he'd seen. "Was there an accident in the stables then?"

Kanda shook his head. "No, she tried escaping on one of the horses. The Order caught her before she make a quarter mile. She was locked in the prison for a few days."

"God." Daisya put his hands on his hips and kicked despondently at the snow. He'd heard of prison existing in the Order's floor plan before, but not of its location or precisely what it looked like. Supposedly, the Order's miserable dungeon lay deep below the foundation, deeper even than Hevlaska's chamber. Only traitors and apparently particularly rebellious exorcists were condemned to its blackness. "And here I thought I didn't want to join at first. I actually wanted to get away from my family for a bit. But then I'm thirteen and she was. . .how old?"

"Six."

Daisya whistled. "So what did you do when you found out about the runaway horse incident?"

"Lenalee, come here a second!" Kanda called, conveniently ignoring the question.

The shout brought the younger girl skipping merrily toward them. She stopped in front of them with an enthusiastic jump, planting both feet in the snow and creating two deep footprints. "Yes?" she asked, brushing her bangs out of her face.

"Well. . .hrm." Daisya scratched at his hair. "The thing is. . ."

"It's impossible to get to Town Below at a reasonable time on foot." Kanda intervened.

Lenalee's smile faded. "Oh." She shuffled her feet, trying not to look disappointed but she wasn't fooling the boys. If they couldn't walk there, they—Lenalee looked up at them in alarm.

"It's just a suggestion." Daisya held up his hands in a placating motion. "We don't have to if you don't want." He kicked Kanda's leg suddenly, earning a glare from the younger boy. "Hey, you reassure her too, rock."

He sighed and looked down at her. "Don't have to." He repeated. "Town Below will be there tomorrow."

"But it's Christmas tomorrow." Lenalee pointed out. "I won't be able to get anything for you two. Or Marie and Brother."

"Christ, she's got a point on that one." Daisya forced a grin and patted her hair. "Smart girl."

Lenalee smiled weakly at the praise. I don't want to ride the horses again. Her Dark Boots felt unusually cold on her feet and her knees knocked together. I have Brother back now. There shouldn't be anything to be afraid of. The horses were gentle enough, but they reminded her too much those days.

"You remember Amaterasu was afraid to look outside the cave?" Kanda asked suddenly. Daisya turned to him with a 'the hell are you saying' expression.

Lenalee nodded.

"Did she?"

She nodded again. The story of how Amaterasu restored light to the world was her favorite and she begged Kanda to tell it to her as often as she could. The Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu, was hurt by her brother and husband Susanowo so she fled to hide in a cave, shutting her light inside with her. It took several years, but the other gods finally coaxed her into leaving and the sun rose again.

"And did Amaterasu-sama enjoy bringing warmth to the world?" Kanda asked, crossing his arms.

"I'm not her." Lenalee said dismally, dropping her head. "I'll bet she wasn't afraid of horses." Her head shot up again. "But she was afraid of big brothers!"

"I don't think that's how it went."

Daisya clapped his fist into the palm of his other hand. "Oh, I get it. What Kanda's trying to say is this Ama-whoever—"

"Amaterasu!" Lenalee cried, outraged.

"Fine! She was afraid to look outside, but she eventually had the courage to and she liked it." Daisya knelt in front of her. "So maybe our little princess will find the horses aren't all that bad. Regardless of the scars."

Lenalee pondered it, looking back and forth between the two of them. Their faces were hopeful and encouraging but she could tell they were leaving it up to her. She turned around and looked at a nearby group of finders tending to some of the horses, including Mary Blue and Rosa. They seemed perfectly at ease with the animals. "Okay." She said quietly.

Daisya leaped up with a loud whoop and nearly lost his balance when he came back down. He grinned in triumph when he balanced himself out, but Kanda made sure to shove him over into the snow. "Why you—!"

Before their horsing around could escalate, Lenalee ran back to Marie to fill the older man in on what they were planning.

"Did they talk you into this?" He asked, frowning

"Sort of." Lenalee admitted. "But it was my decision. I'll go."

Marie looked like he was about to protest, but all he said was, "All right, then, but don't let those two make you do something you don't want to. I'm not too worried about Kanda, but we all know how Daisya is."

Lenalee nodded. "I'll be fine." She started to leave, but turned back to him. "One more thing. I should probably tell miss Gwen where we're going. Can you tell me where she is, Marie?"

Marie smiled warmly and tuned into the Sounds, concentrating on the many voices throughout the expedition. Getting a clear view of the general area the group covered, he singled out the few female voices, listening for Gwendolyn's distinct French tones. "She's over there." Marie pointed. "Talking to Sol and Brutus."

"Thank you." Lenalee bowed her head and took off through the crowd, kicking up flurries of snow in her wake. Finders moved out of her way as did the older exorcists who'd tagged along. "Whoa, there!" Kazana cried when she nearly ran into him. Lenalee apologized and continued on her way.

As promised, Gwen was with her friends, still drinking cocoa. Brutus roared with laughter at something she said, clapping a giant's hand on Sol's slight shoulder with such force, Lenalee was shocked the delicate woman didn't topple over. The other woman was perched atop the sleigh, long legs crossed one over the other. Lenalee tilted her head. She's lovely.

"So how is everything in this part of the world?" Sol asked the other two, "Any good trees to be found?"

Gwen took a sip of her cocoa and nodded like an eager child. "We cut down eight. Three yews and four scots pine. The last one I wasn't sure, so it's our mystery Christmas tree."

Sol whistled appreciatively. "That's pretty nifty. And-" She spotted Lenalee. "Well, look at this. I didn't know our own little China doll was out here."

"Sure is." Gwen smiled, eyes narrowed blissfully. "The petit mignon been with us since we left." Lenalee blushed red. "What can I do for you, mon chéri?"

"Daisya, Kanda, and I are going to Town Below." Lenalee said quietly. "Is that all right, miss Gwen?"

Brutus and the two women looked at each other speculatively, then the big man warned, "You won't make it back before nightfall if you walk. And Kazana told us about what happened wit' the horses earlier, you know."

"We've talked about that." Lenalee said hesitantly.

"About what?" Sol looked confused, but her face lit up in understanding when Gwen and Brutus gave her a significant look. "Oh."

Gwen nodded at her, then turned back to Lenalee with a kind, almost motherly smile. "Run along, then. And tell Daisya and Kanda they'd better not give you too much trouble. I'll deal with them myself if that happens."

"Okay, I'll pass the message."

"Ooh, what a lucky girl you are, having two strong boys to protect you." Sol leaned forward, smiling like a cat with a mouse. Lenalee turned red in the face again and scurried away, followed by the woman's laughter.

-0-0-0-

"I hope I'm as pretty as miss Sol is when I grow up." Lenalee mused wistfully, once again perched atop Mary Blue and keeping her arms locked around Kanda's thin waist. "Or miss Gwen."

Kanda looked back at her for a moment, then turned back to the road ahead. "Why those two?"

"Don't you think they're pretty?" she asked.

Actually, she had no idea what her friend found beautiful, but he considered the question for a couple minutes. "Perhaps."

"I think they are." Lenalee insisted. And Sol came to the Order freely, too. Or so she'd heard. She'd been identified as an exorcist by General Cloud Nyne five or six years ago. Her weapon was a large, full-length scythe, which she used with terrifying accuracy and power. Lenalee liked the weapons with sharp edges, like the scythe or Mugen. They seemed so graceful yet so deadly at the same time. Sol never had any trouble transporting the normally cumbersome weapon, swinging it around as though it were paper.

"Yeah, she is pretty." Daisya agreed, reaching over and patting Lenalee's dark hair. "I'm sure you'll grow up just like her."

"Independent, too."

"Why not?" He laughed. "How are you doing over there, anyway? Scared of falling?"

"A little." Lenalee admitted. "But not as bad as before, promise." It was a little exciting now, she realized. Every now and then, their mount jolted precariously or stumbled a little in the snow drifts, but she never fell. Peering past Kanda, she realized she liked watching Mary Blue's head as it bobbed up and down while she was trotting. In this way, spotted Town Below long before Daisya pointed it out to her and they brought their horses to a much slower gait.

Town Below was larger than she remembered and the square hadn't been so crowded. The horses left u-shaped prints in the snow as they clopped through the crowded streets. There were two or more sleighs making their way through the crowd, but Lenalee was acutely aware of many people staring at the them. She wished she'd covered up the Rose Cross on her coat and it wasn't emblazoned on their black leather saddles. That way people wouldn't know who they were.

"Would you like one, miss exorcist?" Lenalee whirled around to see a girl, not much older than her, trotting alongside Mary Blue with a basket in the crook of her arm and an apple in her hand. "A nice apple for the little exorcist girl?"

Lenalee didn't know what to say that wouldn't offend her so she shook her head nervously. She didn't have money for an apple.

"I'll take one." Daisya called before the girl could vanish within the crowd. Pulling a small bag of change from his pockets, he leaned down and took a couple apples from the girl and passed her a handful of coins in exchange, then mounted Rosa again to follow Kanda to Town Below's stables.

As they set off again, Lenalee kept a wary eye on the crowd. She'd seen exorcists returning from missions with bruises and cuts they'd received from distrusting townsfolk. Were Town Below's people like that? She frowned at the crowd stepping out of the way for the horses (understandable enough), but somewhere to her right, a woman lifted an excited, small child up for a better view. Lenalee smiled at the broad grin on his face and waved her hand a little.

The Town Below's livery was almost full thanks to the increase of people visiting for the holidays. The poor stable boy apologized and promised to make room until Lenalee was sure he was going to bite his tongue off. Kanda shook his head and slid off Mary Blue, then turned to help Lenalee down. The grey mare shook herself and reached her head down to nuzzle Kanda's hair.

"Get off!" He snapped, pushing her muzzle away.

"She likes you." Lenalee giggled.

"I know that, but she doesn't have to keep nosing my head." Kanda frowned irritably as Mary Blue rubbed the bridge of her nose against his cheek. "Stop that!"

"But she's kissing you!" Lenalee smiled, earning her a fierce look, though the effect was dulled by the dark horse nose snuffling his cheek.

Daisya snickered as the stable boy came running back to lead both horses away. "You can retrieve them at any time. Put that away, Master Exorcist." He said to Daisya as he was pulling a bag of coins out of his back pocket. "We don't charge exorcists."

The Turkish exorcist raised his eyebrows "Okay, thanks." Then turned to the others. "Shall we go?"

-0-0-0-

Town Below's market was rich with color and variety, much like the port cities Lenalee had grown up around before she'd joined the Order. There was stall after stall along the wide circumference of the town square and each with its own unique products: fabric, spices, bread, gemstones, toys, almost everything she could name. And the plaza was packed with shoppers pushing their way about like chickens in tight quarters. All around, men advertised and shouted prices, nearly drowning out the group of musicians at the edge of the square. They were of four men with a couple fiddles, an accordion, a small drum, and a dancing woman flourishing a tambourine.

Long cables extended from shops, restaurants, and tenement buildings along the square, spanning the area like huge web and joining together in the center where a tall, grey-green statue of a man holding a lantern aloft stood in the center, icicles clinging to his arms. Morgan de Grayman, the very first exorcist. Lights and greenery were strung across these cables, but were unlit due to the brightness of daylight.

Clutching Kanda and Daisya's hands so as not to lose them in the crowd, Lenalee stood on her toes and inhaled deeply, smelling something hot and delicious cooking at a nearby food booth. "What's that?" she asked, peering at some fish-shaped, golden-brown cakes.

"Taiyaki." Kanda followed her gaze. "It's a type of cake sold in Japan. They're supposed to be filled with some kind of flavoring, but I've never tried one."

"Hey, Moppet," Daisya let go of her hand, crossed his arms behind his head, and stretched. "I heard once in Chinese culture, you have an animal for each year. That true?"

Lenalee finished inspecting the stall and nodded excitedly. "Yes we do! We have New Years in China instead of Christmas. This year is the Snake's Year." She pointed at him. "And since you're thirteen years old, you had to have been born in a Year of the Dragon."

"Cool." He grinned. "What about you two?"

"Um. . ." Lenalee frowned, trying to remember the order of the zodiac. It had been so long since she thought about it. In the house she was born in, there had been a colorful wall hanging in the kitchen featuring each animal in the order they'd come to sit at the Buddha's side. "Well, I think the Dragon came right before, so maybe the Monkey would be Kanda's sign." She smiled brightly. "But I remember I was a Sheep child!"

"Baa!" Daisya bleeted, holding his hands out and running at her. "Baa! Baa!"

Lenalee squealed and took off in the opposite direction, her short legs a blur against the cobbles. "Daisya, stop!" She laughed.

"Baa!" He insisted, scooping her up and swinging her around when he caught her. "The Dragon's caught you now and he's gonna eat you!"

Lenalee screamed in laughter as the older boy bit her neck and made loud gobbling sounds. "Kanda, help me!"

Kanda gave her a uninterested glance, reminding her a little of a cat. "I'm a Snake. Not the Monkey. It's the Rat, the Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and the Boar."

"Oh, right! That's the right order!" Lenalee nodded, wriggling out of Daisya's less attentive grasp.

Her friend nodded somberly. "New Years is pretty big in Asia Branch." He held up his pale hands for emphasis. "They have a big party every year and since they're the richest branch in the Order, they spare no expense." At their skeptical expressions, he glared at them. "It's true."

"No, we were just wondering how you knew that." Daisya stated, holding his hands out to signify no offense.

"I was born there."

Eh? Lenalee opened her mouth a little, eyes widening and her heart growing cold. Beside her, Daisya was unusually subdued, staring at the younger boy in shock. "You're from the Order?" She'd known he'd been here longer than she had, and that he rarely talked about his past but born into the demon war? "Really, Kanda?"

He nodded. "Asia Branch, July Sixth. Been here my whole life."

"Where are your parents, then?" Lenalee asked. Most exorcists had family outside the Order, unqualified to join alongside their son or sister or whoever. But if Kanda's parents were with the Order, who were they? Were they finders, scientists, one a doctor, the other with the communications department, one Crow and the other a cook? Maybe one of them was another exorcist. Accommodating Innocence didn't normally run in families, but every so often there was the exception.

Kanda looked taken aback by the question and stammered, "Dead. Both of them. They were both scientists and they were killed in a lab accident a few years back. That's why I came to the European Branch."

"Jeez." Daisya scratched the back of his head. "So you never even had a chance for a happy childhood, growing up in all this mess and all."

"It's my inheritance." Kanda grinned a little too broadly and crossed his irately arms. "And who says I've had a bad childhood? It's been a fairy decent life, all things considered. Now are we here to find a Christmas present, or are we gonna stand around all day and discuss my history." He turned to Lenalee. "You'd better wander then if you want your present to be a surprise. If not, do what you want. I could care less."

Lenalee shuffled her feet. "When should I meet you back here?"

"I'll come with you." Daisya volunteered, gripping her small hand and swinging it back and forth. "The two of us have never hung out before. You want to?"

The girl nodded and grinned. "Okay. Kanda, I know how often you like to keep to yourself."

"I don't have a problem." He muttered as he turned to leave. "I'll meet you two in an hour by the de Grayman fountain there." He pointed at the frozen over fountain in the middle of the square. "Got it?" Kanda asked, then swung around on his heels and stepped off at a brisk pace.

"Bye-bye!" Lenalee called while Daisya only asked, "Is that shark they're frying over there?"

-0-0-0-

Since when did he start sharing insight to his past, Kanda thought bitterly as he memorized the location of their meeting place and darted through the crowd, eager to get away from the other two. He wove between men and women swarming the market square, hating the claustrophobic feeling they pressed in on him. There were too many in one place. He never talked about his life before coming to the Main Headquarters, not that he was shy or ashamed of it; he just didn't see how it was anyone's business.

Kanda ran until he found a break in the crowd, only then he stopped to catch his breath and pull his bangs out of his face. His life in Asia Branch was just a memory he didn't care for. As it had been doing so discreetly since he left the Order, his hand wandered to his coat pocket and squeezed. He let out a of breath of air, feeling the familiar, metallic cylinder.

Shortly after Lenalee had left his room that morning and he'd retrieved his winter coat, the Chief had stopped him in the hall. 'I can't leave the Order right now and you seem to be close to Lenalee. I was wondering if you'd be willing to pick out something I could give her for Christmas. Anything you think she'd like will do, but try not spending all of this.'

"Tch." Kanda glowered at the measly amount of coins in his hand, eight pence and a crown and some old, tarnished Chinese coin he was pretty sure no shop in Town Below would accept. He must've given it to him by accident. Frowning, he turned to the amount he'd brought from his own pocket money, a noble and two farthings. He'd found the farthings lying around on the street over the last three months, but the noble was a reparation expense for a punishment he'd unfairly received from the Order two years before.

Kanda set off through the crowd at a quick pace, avoiding tall adults and small children selling candy, poinsettias, holly, mistletoe, tree stars, or something that looked like an oversized sock. The group of minstrels had begun playing a rhythmic street waltz and he observed the people dancing in the square would hamper his passing. With a sigh, he dove into the crowd to go around.

Lenalee would like new clothes, he remembered. She hated wearing those somber, black dresses and they made her look sad and tragic. Kanda stopped a couple yards away from a booth that appeared to be selling fabric, but the man standing there passed a parcel wrapped with blue paper to a woman and returned to his advertising. "Don't be shy, ladies and gentlemen! The finest clothes from here in England all the way to China! Anything rough for travel or fancy for the holiday season, we have it."

Kanda blinked thoughtfully, then continued on his way. Maybe he would come back when the rush had died down. The vendor looked as though he would be busy for a time.

That takes care of her brother. He thought, checking his pockets again. Kanda wrapped his coat tighter around himself as a gust of wind blew over the square, jangling the bells strung from the greenery hanging between stalls. It's too cold. He noted, his teeth chattering by now.

As he wandered from one stall to the next, he began to consider maybe it would have been better to have Daisya's help. Most of Lenalee's likes and dislikes, outside of food and nonmaterial things, were unknown to him. She liked stories, so much so he could tell her one fable and she would love it for months. But he told her stories all the time, mostly to shut her up when she annoyed him, therefore telling her a new one wouldn't be anything special. She couldn't read a word in English, so a book was out of the question. Unless he found some Chinese storybook, but that was unlikely.

Every now and then, Kanda paused and stood on his toes to peer at the wares at a particular stall, then moved onward. He didn't think she liked jewelry; he'd never seen her wearing any. Besides, shiny rocks and polished metal was beyond what he had in his pocket, even if he skimmed from her brother's money. So what am I left with?

From what he could tell, she already had what she wanted most. Her long lost brother.

And it wasn't just her. Daisya would probably want something, too, although he was clueless on that matter entirely. There was no predicting him. "Wretched grey." He remarked distractedly to the sky as he walked. He longed to see the blue expanse again, just like on that terrible day. A sky so beautiful it was tragic.

Suddenly, his foot snagged on a loose stone in the street and he stumbled. Kanda scowled and examined the now wider tear in his boot. If there was anything he needed for Christmas it was definitely a new pair of shoes. He should've sent a notice to Komui long before, but—Kanda broke off the train of thought, something occurring to him. Lenalee didn't read English, but surely the new Supervisor could.

"Excuse me, ma'am?" He asked, politely tugging at the skirt of a woman before she could sweep past him. "Is there a bookshop nearby?"

She nodded, staring at the crest on his coat in astonishment. "C-Certainly, Master Exorcist. I could show you to Adder's Booksellers if you like? It's a little hard to find."

"That won't be necessary; I'd prefer directions."

-0-0-0-

Clinging to Daisya's hand, Lenalee pushed her way through the crowd as she was jostled left and right by long legs and bags. The older exorcist walked slowly for her to keep up, but she could tell he was getting frustrated with the crowd. "It's like Bodrum." He muttered. "But colder."

"What's Bodrum."

"Where I'm from." He drew her close to avoid a cart rumbling through the crowd. "My folks ran a souvenir shop. They'd have a field day here."

Lenalee giggled and dipped her hand into her pocket, squeezing the small bag she'd just purchased from a terrifying, witch-like saleswoman. In her mind, if she'd linger any longer, the woman would have stood up and waved a walking stick to beat her with. Not that Lenalee expected her to do such a thing, but she didn't want to take any chances. "You're from Turkey, right?"

"Uh-huh."

"Like the bird."

"What?" Daisya looked back at her in confusion. "Bird?"

Lenalee nodded, grinning mischievously. "Turkey. Bird."

"Pfft!" The older boy wrapped his wiry arms around her and patted her shoulder. "You're silly, Moppet. Turkey's a country, too." She giggled and buried her face in his chest, snugly squeezing his waist. Daisya rest his chin against the top of her head. "You're so cute, but what do you want for Christmas?"

"Mmm…" Lenalee pondered, muffled by his coat. "Maybe a toy? Or a game? I really don't know. I wanted my brother back for the longest time, but…I guess I don't really want anything else right now." She tightened her hold on him and mumbled something.

Daisya pulled away so he could see her face. "What'd you say?"

"I want Kanda to smile."

Translations

Ma cheré – my dear (French)

Bonjour! – Hello! (French)

Ma mie – My friend (French, used when addressing a woman.)

Comment es-tu, mon ami? – How are you, my friend? (French)

Petit mignon – Little darling (French)

Mon chéri? – My dearie